Opinion: Daily Journal

Charter schools: If only more parents realized they have a choice

A good percentage of North Carolinians think charter schools are private schools.

A SurveyUSA from earlier this week found just 37 percent of the people surveyed believe charter schools are public schools, which they are. But 44 percent don’t, and 19 percent are not sure.

That’s quite a disconnect. But it isn’t atypical, says Terry Stoops, vice president of Research and director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation.

“It usually does not impede legislation, because state think tanks and charter advocacy groups do a good job of educating lawmakers about charters.”

It’s another story when we talk about educating parents, who, says Stoops, are used to thinking about schools is dualistic terms, meaning public and private.

“Charter school boards, teachers, and administrators need to take the lead here. By far, they have the greatest incentive to explain to parents and their communities what a charter is and what it has to offer. Indeed, the sustainability of their enterprise depends on their ability to educate parents and their communities.”

The media is usually good about telling people charters are indeed public schools, says Stoops.

“The problem is that they have a tendency to leave out charters in discussions of public school policy generally. The class-size debate is one example of this.”

Charter schools, according to the state Department of Public Instruction, are public schools of choice authorized by the State Board of Education and operated by independent nonprofit boards of directors.

“State and local tax dollars are the primary funding sources for charter schools, which have open enrollment and cannot discriminate in admissions, associate with any religion or religious group, or charge tuition. Charter schools operate with freedom from many of the regulations that govern district schools, but charter schools are held accountable through the state assessment and accountability system.”

To be clear, charter schools get public money, albeit not as much as traditional public schools. State law prohibits charters from receiving state and local capital funding.

Charter schools are growing exponentially, nevertheless.

North Carolina has 173 charter schools with some 102,000 students.

While the state legislature removed the cap on the number of charters schools that may operate in the state, a cap on student enrollment growth remains. The enrollment cap forces schools that could otherwise accommodate more students to limit the number of seats available, necessitating the lottery selection process.

“In the past year,” the Charlotte Observer wrote in January, “charter schools gained 9,630 students while district schools lost about 3,400, the average daily membership reports show. Seventy-five of the state’s 115 districts reported fewer students this year than last year.”

Charter schools, to stay relevant and viable, largely depend on the schools’ parents, who must ensure their children can get to and from school — most charters don’t have buses — and fund the enterprise in myriad ways, including both with their time and their money.

Raleigh Charter High School, for instance, is widely considered one of the best — if not the best — public high schools in North Carolina, and one of the top charter schools in the U.S.

Yet getting in is no easy feat, regardless of a students’ academic acumen or any connections their parents may have. For the 2017-18 school year, 1,252 students applied for admission to Raleigh Charter. Through a lottery, the school accepted 71 rising ninth-graders, as well as 79 rising ninth-grade siblings.

Ponder, if you will, those numbers.

It’s a competitive process that begins with the lottery and continues in the classroom. Courses are challenging and rigorous, and students have at least a couple hours of homework each night. But students are there because, most honestly, their parents want them to be. The parents realize — as do most students after a time — that life consists of a series of challenges and obstacles, uneven parameters, and an incessant need to shift and to adapt.

Though difficult at times, it’s a necessary lesson in life, giving students a veritable jump toward college or other pursuits.

Parents have a stack of reasons for choosing the schools their children attend, but many times they don’t choose at all, an outcome that often presents itself in the form of frustrated, disengaged, distracted — and even unruly — students.

On a personal level, our children — now high school freshmen — have attended either magnet or charter schools since kindergarten.

Because we wanted them to.

My wife and I often shook our heads in unison when, while talking about our children and their school, our friends would say, “Yes, but you pay for them to go there.”

We all pay for public schools, we would say. If only more people realized they have a choice. If only more people really cared that they do.